It is no surprise that Humboldt County has a lack of affordable housing. For years, county government has identified the need for more housing of all types but the private sector hasn't built enough and many of the new builds are simply too expensive for the majority of Humboldt residents to afford. Consequently, the 2019 draft Housing Element update is calling for some dramatic changes, from the creation of a tiny home village to a county development department. Planning and Building Department Director John Ford said the county needs to start thinking about solutions for housing needs in a new way because, "unless something changes, we are not going to be able to build affordable housing in Humboldt County."
"The old notion of, 'Zone it and build it and they will come,' is not working and there are a lot of hurdles for the county to overcome," Ford told the Journal.
One of the ways Ford hopes to solve the housing crisis is by establishing a county-run development department that would build or acquire low-rent housing. In order for the county to be able to build low-rent housing, voters would have to approve a ballot measure due to Article 34 of the California Constitution, which prohibits counties from developing, constructing or acquiring low-rent housing without voter approval.
"What we would be doing is going to the county (voters) and asking if they want us to undertake a housing project that the county can put up and develop," Ford said. "Some of it is just being able to build homes at a price point where people can afford."
The 2019 Housing Element, which came before the Humboldt County Planning Commission on May 16, is a roadmap that lays out the path the county needs to take in order to address housing needs of the residents in unincorporated areas for the next eight years. It is currently in the draft stage and staff expects to present a final draft to the planning commission June 6.
The draft element outlines seven main goals, including promoting regulatory practices and incentives to increase production of affordable housing; providing workforce housing that is close to local businesses; promoting affordable housing opportunities for the disabled, homeless and single parents; and providing opportunities for the creation of more emergency shelters, day centers and supportive and transitional housing.
In the draft, the cost of building is identified as the biggest barrier to solving the county's housing needs, but the draft notes other factors, as well, including environment constraints, a "lack of knowledge about the permitting process" and "a lack of access to expertise." But the draft element makes plain that Humboldt County's historic approach has not addressed what it now refers to as a "crisis."
The median home price in Humboldt County is $310,000, which most residents can't afford, as the median household income in Humboldt County is $43,718, according to the U.S. Census.
"About 70 percent of Humboldt households cannot afford the median priced home," Michelle Nielsen, senior planner with the planning and building department, said during the May 2 planning commission meeting, adding that the minimum household income needed to afford a $310,000 home is $67,210, or 35 percent more than the county's median household income. "What you will see is large numbers of people overpaying for their housing. So, then, they have less money available for other matters like childcare and those sorts of things."
Although the cost of housing seems to be a barrier even for those in the median-income group — an income of $59,900 for a family of four— a surplus of units were built from 2014-2019. According to county data, 205 units were built to meet the need of only 146 units in that category, likely because developing middle-class, single-family homes is one of the few areas developers still find profitable. Nielsen said the housing needs of the low-income categories outlined in the 2014 Housing Element were not adequately met and there are a multitude of reasons for the shortfalls.
"It seems to be a combination of factors with a lot of it surrounding the economy, the cost of housing, the cost of building housing and the labor market," Nielsen told the Journal. "It can be whether the pay is enough, or if we have enough skilled labor to do the work. There are a combination of factors that contribute to the problem."
According to the 2014 Housing Element, Humboldt needed 859 new residential units built by 2019 to meet the housing needs of the county's unincorporated areas. Of the 859 units, 347 were needed for residents who fall into low-income categories but only 127 were built. That's a pattern that has continued since the 2007 Housing Element, which estimated 567 units would be needed for people in the low-income categories only to see just 20 percent of them constructed.
Planning Commission Vice Chair Alan Bongio, a developer by trade, said there are two main problems that stand in the way of addressing the county's housing needs. One is the cost and the other is the lack of housing being built. Bongio said that in the last four years, he can only think of two subdivisions being built.
"The bigger problem that we have facing Humboldt County is that we have nobody that is developing," Bongio said during a May 16 meeting. "There's no money left in it and everything's got too expensive."
When it comes to sheltering and housing the county's homeless population, the draft 2019 Housing Element states that there's "no question there is a crisis" and the number of homeless people in Humboldt County "far exceeds shelter capacity." According to the biennial Point in Time Count, which attempts to calculate the number of people sleeping without shelter on a single night, there are almost 1,500 people living without shelter in Humboldt County, a per-capita rate that is roughly three times the state average, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data.
The draft 2019 Housing Element calls for the building of more shelter space and transitional housing. Additionally, it proposes rezoning the regulations for tiny homes, an allowance of movable tiny homes and a tiny home village. The tiny home village would consist of a group of three or more tiny homes that have a centralized location for cooking, cleaning and showering. Betty Chinn's Blue Angel Village on West Washington Street in Eureka, where approximately 40 people live in converted shipping containers, is an example of a similar model.
Ford said the county is also going to pursue grants in a more aggressive way in order to find funding to meet housing needs. He also wants to build partnerships with the people building the homes and the people trying to get into them.
"One of the things we would like to do is to move the needle to allow more people to get into homes with a focus on median-income and less," Ford said. "We need to build housing that is affordable for the people that live and work here."
Freddy Brewster is a journalism student at Humboldt State University and enjoys covering breaking news events, public records and holding those in power accountable. Brewster has received multiple Presidential Honor awards for his academic achievements and in his free time, you can find him rock climbing, surfing or attending a local art event.